6 thoughts on “Opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est: on mistranslating Mill’s Latin quotations

  1. This is really good stuff. I strongly suspect that Mill’s “Subjection of Women” is not unique in having translation problems of this sort.

    Recommendation: submit this post to Reason Papers for their “Afterwords” department. I created that department at RP precisely for pieces like this–short essays on topics that would be of interest to RP‘s readers, but that are unlikely to be published anywhere else. The editors will ask you to convert the citations to Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s sufficiently well written to be published more or less as is. Carrie-Ann tells me that they’re trying to put an issue out in late July, so it could well go in that issue. (I should probably say we’re trying to put an issue out, but though I’m on the masthead, I’m no longer central to the editorial process at RP.) Likewise the earlier post on “Donald Trump and the Ridiculous” (I forget the exact title). Both of those really ought to have a wider audience than the 100 or so people who show up at PoT every day. By publishing them in RP, your audience will grow from that to the 5-10 people who show up at RP every day. Apres ca, les paparazzi.


  2. A friend tipped me off that the Modern Library Classics edition, with notes by Dale Miller, gets the translation right: “Latin. “Opinion of store is one of the chief causes of want,” a (mis)quotation from the preface of Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) Novum Organum (1620). Bacon’s point, and Mill’s, is that an overestimation of the value of what has already been attained can blind us to the need to attain more.” The interpretation is questionable, and it’s not a misquotation — unless that means no more than that it isn’t identical word for word — but this is better than nothing.

    This led me to some further searches for what editions I could read online. I discovered a few things.

    First, the Dover Thrift Edition gives us the familiar mistake: “general opinion is inadequate on most matters.” Dover, Hackett, and Penguin must account for a huge proportion of readers. It’s nice to see that the Oxford World Classics edition isn’t the only one that gets it right, but it’s quite possible that most people who have read The Subjection of Women have read a version with the wrong translation of the Latin.

    Second, many ‘editions’ now available do not have any footnote on the Latin at all. An Amazon search for ‘Subjection of Women’ returns mostly print-on-demand volumes that merely reproduce Mill’s text without any annotations — even one volume that boasted of its annotations. The proliferation of cheap, nearly worthless editions of works no longer in copyright is not news, but it’s a further sign of the degradation into which book publishing has fallen.

    Third, the same Amazon search returns not merely editions of Mill’s work or books about Mill’s work, but a startling number of books advocating for the subjection of women. These books are, unsurprisingly, “Christian” books. Admittedly, one of them extends to women the kindness of noting that subjection does not entail absolute silence — so gracious! Another — available, alas, only in a Kindle edition — extols the virtues of veils for women as a sign of “godly femininity” and “subjection to husband and lord” (one hopes that the ‘and’ there is not epexegetic). But here is the real gem of the collection:

    “She [Margaret Thatcher] was undoubtedly a brilliant woman, but her evaluation of women was both unbiblical and missing the point. My wife doesn’t have any problem making decisions without my input. I would never suggest that she does. The problem is that as a married woman, she has been commanded to voluntarily place herself under my leadership. That doesn’t mean she can’t make a decision without my permission. It means she had best not make any decisions she knows I would disapprove.” (David Purkey, God’s Plan for Women). Having been married, I can attest that spouses, whether wives or husbands, are generally well advised not to make decisions of which their spouses will disapprove; that is mere prudence when not part of the co-operation and mutual accommodation that one might think is basic to a relationship like marriage. One suspects, however, that Purkey does not regard his wife’s approval as a constraint on his own decisions in quite the same way as his is of hers. Praise the Lord that this commanded subjection is to be voluntary!

    Never let it be said that The Subjection of Women is an outmoded, irrelevant book in this new age of feminist triumph.


  3. Thank you so much for writing this essay! I’m reading The Subjection of Women right now on WikiSource, and it (perhaps fortunately for me) doesn’t have a footnote translation for that Latin phrase, so I Googled it, and fortunately your essay on Reason Papers was the very first result. By writing it, you’ve made the world a slightly better place, by steering at least one slightly lost person in the right direction, who might otherwise have stumbled into the same unfortunate misinterpretation as the people who read any of those mistaken editions.

    Liked by 2 people

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